Jaclyn Smith: A New Maturity

One of America’s most beautiful women faces conflicts, new realities. What has happened to her storybook marriage ... what is in her future?

Hollywood marriages, so often shaky, are difficult to write about. And the scorching Monday afternoon I spent in Phoenix, Arizona, with Jaclyn Smith, the patrician beauty of Charlie’s Angels, was as suspenseful as her forthcoming movie, Nightkill, which she was filming in the hot Arizona sun. Would she confirm the fact that she and TV actor Dennis Cole were breaking up their marriage of less than two years? Would the Texas belle, whose old-fashioned values and sense of privacy are as famous as her flawless face, show any signs of strain?

“Wait till you see the dailies,” whispered a producer. “She’s phenomenal!” And so kind, so gracious, so cooperative. Adjectives flowed through the parched lips of her co-workers like lemonade. By the time the crew broke for lunch, it was clear that everyone loved working with the gorgeously tanned Jaclyn Smith.

What followed Jackie’s afternoon on the film set was a candid interview in which Dennis Cole and Jaclyn drifted in and out of a dressing room trailer, providing a joint portrait of a couple trying to save a marriage. Their words that day rang with sincerity. But seemingly, this marriage could not be saved. In June, Jaclyn announced that she was separating from Dennis, although they said divorce would not be part of their plans at the moment.

But somehow, the interview does not lose its impact in retrospect. Indeed, it still tells a great deal about Jaclyn Smith and her determination to find a stable lifestyle in what appears to be her second unsuccessful marriage.

“It would be silly to say everything is a rose garden,” Jaclyn admitted reluctantly when we were alone. “Two actors together have some strikes against them to begin with because you’re both going in different directions. There are tensions. There are problems. Two years ago I wouldn’t have said this. Everything had to be pretty for me.”

Perhaps facing her inward thoughts, she added, “Marriage isn’t the end-all. You think when you marry problems will go away. But when two people are living in the same house, you have to do some changing. And changing is always hard.”

Since the gossip had it that it was partly the playboy reputation of Dennis that was making the trouble, I was fascinated to see how they answered questions when both of them were in the trailer.

“Perhaps I see Dennis in a way that no one else sees him,” Jaclyn said that day. “I think maybe his public image is different from his private one.”

What is his public image?

“A man about town. And he certainly was!” She laughs and challenges him. “Wouldn’t you say so, Dennis?” A pause. “But you see, I changed him!” I search my reporter’s mind to see if there is hostility or mockery in what she says. I cannot remember it as anything but a straight, sincere statement.

When he is out of the trailer, however, she hedges.

“There are problems. When I do Charlie’s Angels, getting up at five-thirty and coming home at eight every day, it’s part of a lifestyle. I can’t expect his day to stop because I have to go to bed early. I have to understand that.” (Looking back again, I realize that, at some time, all the Charlie’s Angels stars had indicated that the series had put pressure on their personal lives.)

Jaclyn also firmly denied that she and Dennis had been separated last winter, when she went home to visit her parents in Houston. “I’m very, very close to my parents. I telephone my mother from wherever I am. I visit them often, whenever I can break away from my work. No, Dennis and I have not been separated since we were married in October, 1978.”

Had they visited a marriage counselor?

“We have a doctor, our general doctor. She can talk to us. I think any sensitive person can help. We also have several friends who are quite sensitive to the worldly problems we might have.”

Jaclyn admitted when questioned that she and Dennis had signed a pre-marital contract –surprising for a woman of such traditional, non-feminist ideas.

“Yes, we did that,” she says, uncomfortable that I’d brought it up. “It was Dennis’ idea, not mine. He has a tremendous amount of property of his own. But I think he wanted the contract for the sake of my parents. Maybe to put their minds at ease. Who knows?”

Since they have separated, Dennis has moved out of their house in Coldwater Canyon, where they lived next door to Kate Jackson, and where Jaclyn and her former Angel sidekick literally had over-the-fence conversations.

Self-avowed idealists

Jaclyn Smith and Dennis ColeBoth Jaclyn and Dennis are self-avowed idealists. Their two-year conservative courtship (no living together!) and marriage were much publicized and idyllic. Dennis wrote poetry to her, sent roses. They shared candlelight dinners. Such carefully orchestrated romanticism seemed offbeat to cynical Hollywood, which refused to take it at face value. But Jackie Smith herself was not the usual stereotype, either, so perhaps, they said, it was all for real.

Jaclyn talks about her romanticism with honesty.

“I’m growing up emotionally and learning every day,” she says lightly. “But I am still a very romantic person and extremely moralistic. I fantasize and idealize things. Sometimes I wonder if being so romantic, I miss the whole reality of a situation because I’m in a dream world.”

The first man she let into her life was also an actor, Roger Davis. Jaclyn was 22, studying ballet, and after only two dates, she decided to marry. They had a huge formal wedding in Houston.

“My marriage, the first one – not to this beauty here,” she grinned, stroking the arm of Dennis, who had come back to the trailer, “was another example of how I live in a dream world. I was a naïve, innocent little girl who thought that marriage was a picket fence and roses. I didn’t know how to deal in anything except perfect pictures. I believed in total commitment and fidelity, and I desperately wanted children, but Roger did not.” She clung to the marriage for four years. “Being idealistic, I thought if you had the right thoughts and a positive frame of mind, everything would work out.” But that marriage, too, dissolved.

“You learn from pain, and from your mistakes.” Jaclyn says, glancing at Dennis. “Maybe my first husband needed a more worldly girl. We wanted different things in life at that point. Maybe if we had met later on it would have been different.”

The thought makes her straighten her slim shoulders. “I’m a much stronger person now, with definite opinions more open, more talkative, more up-front.”

Jackie met Dennis when he guest-starred on an early segment of Charlie’s Angels. “Dennis accepted me for what I was, and made life easier in a difficult time,” she recalls.

Jaclyn was also attracted to Cole’s relationship with his son, Joey, then 15. “They spent every weekend together, real quality time. Joey was such a nice, serious, gentlemanly-type boy, the sort of son I would like to have.”

Yet their backgrounds were totally different, so they delayed a commitment for two years. Dennis’ parents separated when he was young. “I was brought up kind of on my own, fending for myself,” he said. By contrast, Jaclyn had led a sheltered, well-to-do life.

“Jaclyn’s makeup man hurried into the trailer to touch up her face. Jackie is rehearsing a scene in which she’s driving a car with the body of her dead husband in the trunk. She’s stopped by a highway patrolman and is, of course, terrified.

The director tells her to pretend it’s someone she knows who’s dead in the back of the car. “Are you kidding?” Jackie said incredulously. “I’d be bawling and wailing!” Which is not the effect that anybody wants.

In real life, Jaclyn cries easily. “I’m emotional at the drop of a hat. Sad stories, frustrations – listen. I cry when a dog crosses the street, if I love the dog.”

She shows her anger, too. “Sometimes I’m very high-strung,” she admitted lightly. “When Dennis and I have squabbles, which we do- everybody fights sometimes – I get it all out. Me, I can kick and scream, and then say, ‘Oh, hey, let’s kiss and make up.’”

Children still on her mind

This hot afternoon in Phoenix, Jaclyn Smith still had children on her mind.

For year, she has let it be known that she yearns for a family. Dennis’ 19-year-old son by his first marriage, Joseph, had been living with them, and Jackie seemed to get a great kick out of being a teenager’s stepmother. As she approaches her 33rd birthday in October, Jaclyn Smith knows that her lifelong dream of having a child of her own is again stalled.

But, as they sat together that day in Phoenix, Dennis said, “She knows her ultimate desire is to have children, but another of her great desires is having magazine covers. When she finishes the show, maybe we’ll try…”

Jackie interrupted with:  “There are complications that maybe I don’t want to talk about. There were in my first marriage. I wanted to have a baby at that time, but the marriage wasn’t strong enough.”

But nothing, she indicated to me, would stop her from having a child.

“If necessary, we can always adopt. This may sound bizarre to you,” she stated, “but even if I were having problems with Dennis, that would not keep me from having a child.”

Meanwhile, her career schedule is a heavy one. When she finishes Nightkill, the movie she’s wedged into a six-week vacation period from Charlie’s Angels, she returns to another ABC-TV season. And more movie offers. Though her own company, GH productions (named for her grandfather Gaston Hartsfield), Dennis is putting together a film based on the tragic life of Gene Tierney, in which Jackie will play the role of the 30s and 40s star who suffered a series of mental breakdowns after giving birth to a retarded child.

“Pawpaw,” as she recalls her grandfather, was a Methodist minister who died five years ago at the age of 101. It is clear that he has been a major influence in her life.

She has a recurring dream about him in which she climbs into heaven and brings him back.

“God, he was such a darling man, so perfect and untarnished by worldliness! By comparison, my life is so superficial.”

On Sundays, Jaclyn Smith tries to work with a group of retarded children, teaching them ballet. Obviously, she is still trying to be as good a person as her grandfather would want her to be, in a world he wouldn’t have understood. Dennis seemed to understand this.

“She loves children, and feels life has been very good to her,” he says, recognizing that Gaston Hartsfield is a hard act to follow. “She wants to repay that in some way. It’s part of her guilt thing.” He added, “Her relationship with her grandfather was very special. Not many people have anyone that vital in their lives. I know I didn’t until I met Jaclyn. She is what every man would want – beautiful, warm, loving, caring.”

Obviously something went wrong. Obviously, Jaclyn Smith is far more complex than even she realizes. Recent photographs of her in fashion magazines somehow reveal a new sophistication, a deepening and sensual maturing. Will her breakup with Dennis signal to her that perhaps her needs go beyond sheer romance… that she has been pursuing a dream that ultimately must be recast with a new leading man?

Film is a challenge

The sun is going down outside the trailer. Jackie is enervated but cheerful. “This film is a challenge,” she sighed, “so much more emotionally demanding than anything I’ve done.”

And if it does make her a superstar, will she go on to ever bigger projects, slipping past the yearning for children?

“Oh, no,” she says quietly. “Look, if this movie’s a big smash, who knows exactly what the next step might be? I am very involved with my work. But first and foremost, I’m really a family girl. I’d probably feel cheated if I could not have a family. And if all this would ruin my chances for that, I feel that I would have to give it up.”

It is a promise made to herself. And when it will come about, only time will tell.

© Ladies Home Journal


By Phyllis Battelle Ladies Home Journal August 1980

“I’m growing up emotionally and learning every day. But I am still a very romantic person and extremely moralistic. I fantasize and idealize things. Sometimes I wonder if being so romantic, I miss the whole reality of a situation because I’m in a dream world.”

Jaclyn Smith